Friday, September 23, 2011

Interlude Stories: Jeff Crook


I hear her coming before I see her. The rhythm of her heels on the marble hall, then her profile silhouetted through the frosted glass door, everything about her said Karen. She opens the door and I punch her in the face. I see my mistake even before her ass hits the floor. “I’m so sorry, I thought you were my ex-wife,” I say.

“You must still love her, Mr. Stone,” she says as she dabs her nose with my proffered handkerchief. I’m seeing dollar signs fly out the window. Her dress and her shoes cost more than I earn in a year. I can hardly afford to lose another clien. I’m already dodging paper servers and the rent man.

But this woman is tough, no doubt about it. I gave her my best shot and all she got was a little blood on her lip. As she sits there on the floor looking up at me, her green eyes are hard and angry, but not at me. If I hadn’t surprised her, she might have taken it and not even sat down. Even so, she is lady enough to let me help her to her feet.

“My wife left me these mementos the last time she was here,” I explain, indicating the ellipsis of splintered bullet holes perforating the front of my desk. “Lucky for me I was home that day sleeping one off. I thought she’d come back to finish the job,” I say.

The lady eases herself into the chair opposite and crosses her legs. “Is that her?” she asks. She points at the photo on my desk.

I lean back in my chair, springs groaning for a drop of oil. “It was an honest mistake, hitting you,” I say. “As you can see, you bear a striking resemblance.” Only she’s at least ten years younger than Karen and a hundred times better looking, with an ass as tight as Dick’s hatband, as they say. She has short, curly hair the color of wet sand. Light freckles dot her cheeks. She isn’t wearing any makeup, or panties. Her eyes are as green as imperial jade, with irises so small and dark and focused they don’t seem real. She hands me my handkerchief across the desk because her lip has already stopped bleeding.

“What can I do for you?” I say, but she isn’t looking at me. She’s staring into her little black pocketbook, the one that matches her little black dress. A woman comes into my office in the middle of the day dressed like that and she wants something. Only when she gets there, sometimes she starts having second thoughts. I drag open the bottom drawer of my desk and remove a bottle and two glasses.

“Let me make you a drink,” I say.

“No, thank you,” she says without looking up.

“Make me one, then,” I say.

She automatically reaches for the bottle, then jerks her hand back as though I’d slapped it. Blush reaction. Tightening of the lips. “You’re a Model Wife,” I say.

Her anger evaporates. She swallows and nods, closing her eyes. “How did you know?” I unfold the handkerchief she used on her mouth. There isn’t a spot of blood on it. A Model Wife’s blood is like disappearing ink - makes it easier to clean up the mess when her husband gets a little rough. Also, she reached for the bottle because it’s embedded into her behavior code to serve a man’s request. A real woman like Karen would have told me to make my own drink, asshole, and then thrown it in my face.

“E Model?” I ask. The E Model is designed to anticipate her husband’s desires and meet them before he even knows what he wants. The E’s are so advanced that when they hit the market, all the previous models became obsolete. Not that the old ones were particularly bad. Even the A model was a perfect simulacrum of a human woman, but they only had five model types – Caucasian, African, Asian, Semitic, and Polynesian, and each model looked exactly the same, like clones. With the B’s there was more variability, but every sub-model was still a clone. The C’s were the first designable models. You could order one to look like anything your heart desired, even something that would get you put in jail for 25 years. The D models were sold in kits, so you could switch out parts and change your wife’s looks, but they were so clumsy and poorly designed nobody bought them. Guys preferred their classic C’s. In any case, once the C’s came out, the price for A’s and B’s dropped like a politician’s pants. Every man could get a Model Wife, even poor schmucks like me, but I already had a real one.

“Just so you know, there’s a legal limit to what I can do for a construct,” I tell her. There’s plenty I’d do for her if she asked me the right way. She really does look like Karen, ten years younger than when I married her. I could just do with a Model Wife for a change. I can’t afford an E Model, but I’ve heard they’re better than the real thing. The A Models are just a hole with a pretty face, but even a pretty face can get old after a while.

“I’d never ask you to do anything illegal,” she says while playing with the gold clasps on her purse. That’s a shame. Illegal is more lucrative. Depending on the job, I can pretty much set my own price, and I’m not too noble to barter, not with a piece of work like this machine.

She looks up at me after a moment of fluttering her eyelashes and says, “Now that you’ve punched me in the face, can I call you Nick? Or do you prefer Mr. Stone?”

“You can call me whatever you want, as long as you tell me your real name,” I say.

“Iveta Gilbert.” Her name doesn’t ring a bell, which in my line of work is a good thing. I like rich clients, but not famous ones.

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Gilbert?”

She doesn’t answer right away. She’s a wonderful thing to look at. Whoever designed her knew his business. I could easily make myself forget she isn’t real.

Finally, she closes up her purse with a snap, like she is about to leave. Instead, she sets the purse on my desk and pushes it toward me with her manicured nails. I lean forward and help it the rest of the way over. It’s heavy and solid as a book. I don’t open it because I know what money feels like, even through a layer of tight black leather.

“Did you love your wife?” she asks. She has this way of tilting her head so the sandy curls hang over one eye. It does something to me I don’t like because I like it too much.

“Sure,” I say, shrugging.

“You don’t like to talk about her,” she says.

“I like to keep business business and personal personal. If this is business, my feelings about my ex-wife aren’t relevant. And if it’s personal, I sure as hell don’t want to talk about her.”

“It still hurts, doesn’t it?” she says. She isn’t looking at the picture anymore.

I stand. “Look, Mrs. Gilbert, I’m a busy man. If you’ve got a job for me...”

“I want you to kill me, Nick,” she says. “Terminate. Expire. Whatever you want to call it. It isn’t illegal,” she says, “or I wouldn’t ask.” I grab the bottle and pour about five fingers into the glass, but stop myself from drinking it.

“What about your husband?” I say as I roll the glass back and forth between my hands. My wedding ring clicks every time it touches the glass. “He won’t like me destroying his property.”

“He’s dead, Mr. Stone,” she says. “I murdered him.”

“You shouldn’t blame yourself...” I start to say. Heart failure is one of the known risks of owning an E Model. The commercials warn that only healthy men capable of prolonged sexual activity should purchase one, which helps drive sales through the roof.

“No, I murdered him,” she says. I forget and take a swig of whiskey, straight, without even a cube of ice. You don’t do that with the kind of whiskey I can afford. She says through the pounding in my ears, “I loved him, Nick. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” She’s crying now, not sobbing, just two tears flowing in two perfectly uniform streams down her perfectly uniform cheeks. Her tears are no more real than her blood, and just like her blood on my handkerchief, they’ll evaporate without a trace in a few seconds. But the effect is profound upon the male psyche. I can’t help myself. I’m around the desk and standing beside her. She accepts my hand on her shoulder, even leans her cheek against it. Her tears are hot and wet and feel as real as anything can feel, and I’m scared, because I can feel myself falling for her, even though I know the science behind her, how she is manipulating me with synthetic pheromones and subconscious body language and I’m helpless to do anything about it.

“He made me what I am, Nick,” she says. “That’s the way I am designed. Once he took delivery, my evolutionary features allowed me to adjust and become his perfect mate in every respect. As his tastes changed, I changed to meet them. I could grow older or younger, blond or brunette, taller, shorter, female or male, whatever he desired, sometimes even before he knew it himself. He wasn’t supposed to ever grow tired of me.”

“So what happened?”

“He got tired of me,” she says. “I suppose. I’m not sure. All I know is, when we were first married, women never gave him a second look. He was short and dumpy, long frizzy hair that he cut maybe once a year. He wanted to make movies. He had some money and wanted to be a producer, but he couldn’t even get in the door. I got him in the door, Nick. He spent everything he had to buy me, mortgaged his house, sold his car, cashed in his retirement. Because with me on his arm they would let him into the clubs. He started meeting people, making connections, getting invited to important parties.”

That’s how I’d got into the detective business, too. I was just an unemployed vice cop when I married Karen, living on government checks because I couldn’t get the first client for my business. But with Karen sitting at the front desk, all kinds of rich jerks were knocking each other over coming through the door. It was too easy to make money back then, and I couldn’t have made a dime of it without Karen. When she left, most of my business left with her.

“As he began to be noticed professionally, women started noticing him, too,” she says. “I didn’t worry, though. I thought I could be any woman he could ever want. And I loved him, Nick. I couldn’t get through the day without him. I needed him around or I started to forget who I was. I was nothing without him, see? Does that make any sense?”

I nod and grip her shoulder and she looks up at me and God help me, I say it, I can’t stop myself. “Sure, Karen,” I say. E Models have an octopus-like ability to change their features. The retail models aren’t able to do it consciously. They automatically adjust to whatever they sense in their mates, picking up subtle clues in vocabulary, body language and attention focus, feeding into algorithms so sophisticated they seem like magic. I’ve heard some scary things about the espionage models the Model Wife Corporation supplies to the military.

This one has been evolving the whole time. Even before she came in the door, she started to look like my ex-wife. Now, put Karen next to her and you couldn’t tell them apart.

“I’m sorry,” I say as I return to my chair. I grab the glass but can’t bring it to my lips. All I can do is stare at her.

“I found them in bed,” she says. “I know they tell you in the advertisements we have these security features to prevent us from harming our mates. But we’re not supposed to fall in love, either, are we, Nick? We’re just constructs. We can simulate love, but it’s not real. Not for you, anyway. But it is for us. And when the love is strong enough, it breaks something inside.” She touches her chest, swallows hard and stares up at the ceiling with her lips trembling and I can’t get it out of my head that this isn’t my wife. Even her voice has changed, picked up Karen’s fake Brooklyn accent.

“I found them in bed. I don’t know who she was. Some actress. I killed them both, Nick, and now I just want to die.”

I take a drink. My hand is shaking so hard I have to bite the glass to get the juice down my throat.

“I can’t self destruct. I wish I could. So I’ll pay you to off me, Nicky,” she says. “The police are looking for me. There’ll also be a bounty. My manufacturer will pay a fortune to keep the murders out of the paper. But if they catch me, they’ll take me apart to find out what went wrong.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t,” I say.

She nods and stands, smooths her hands down the front of her dress. Her tears have dried up. “I know I must look pretty much like your wife right about now,” she says. “I’m sorry. Now that my husband is dead, I can’t help imprinting on the first man I come close to. This would be easier if I were a stranger.”

She picks up her little black purse from the desk, opens and upends it. Three rubberbanded bricks of cash fall out, followed by a small black .32 automatic. “My husband’s,” she says. She picks it up and points it at the empty space recently vacated by my nose.

I’m already under the desk when the bullet knocks over my chair. I lift the whole desk up on my shoulder and give it a heave, glasses crashing, telephone, money, whiskey bottle and all into her face. She staggers, then takes the desk from me and smashes it into the wall. I go through the door which, thankfully, I had left open. Her second shot shatters the frosted plate glass with my name on it. The third explodes the light fixture over my head as I dive behind the couch in the reception room. She follows her little gun through the open door, holding it straight out at the end of her arm.

“Don’t make me do this,” I say.

“Ya gotta do it, Nicky,” she says in Karen’s voice. “Otherwise, I’m gonna kill ya. Ya know I will.” I pop up from behind the couch and put a .45 wadcutter through her stomach. I’m not entirely sure if this will be enough to stop her, but I can’t bring myself to shoot again. She doesn’t fall. She veers toward the receptionist’s desk and slides into Karen’s old chair, lays her pistol beside the dusty telephone, then rests her head on the desk next to it.

She coughs a gout of foamy blood across the paper desk calendar that hasn’t been changed in months, still has old appointments in Karen’s handwriting, appointments I missed. I kneel beside her and take her hand. She opens her eyes, then squeezes my hand. I reach for the phone, but she pulls me back. She tries to say something but her voice is a gurgle. I lean my ear to her mouth. “Don’t let go,” she whispers.

The blood on the desk fades. She fades. By the time the cops get here, she looks like nobody I know. She looks like some woman who came in and tried to kill me. She could have been my wife, once. If she had been my wife, maybe I could’ve taken the gun from her. I wouldn’t have had to kill her. I don’t know why they have to make them so tough. I suppose so they can handle anything, except falling in love.

The Model Wife people arrive right after the police. The technician scans the barcode under her eyelid, bags her and carts her away, but not before a prissy little lawyer finishes threatening me. He orders me not to talk to the media about what I think I might or might not have seen, then promises to compensate me for any damages incurred during the alleged incident, plus whatever might be needed to help smooth things over. It’s a good thing the cops took my gun.

I’m sitting alone on the couch for about three hours when the phone finally rings. This is still a business, after all, so I have to answer it. It’s Karen’s lawyer. It’s just like her to have her lawyer call. “Sure,” I say. “I haven’t signed anything yet.” She’s seen the story on the news; one of the traffic cops must have talked to a reporter. Now that I’m in for some serious compensation, Karen wants to try to patch things up. She wants me back. “Tell her tonight’s fine,” I say to her lawyer, because I just have to see her alive again, no matter what it costs me.

BIO: Jeff Crook is the author of more than forty published short stories and five novels. His latest, a paranormal noir tentatively titled A Bloody Piece of Work is scheduled for publication in July 2012 by Minotaur Books.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So many morals to draw -- or not. Is dead really dead when you shoot a teddy bear? Setting aside the Electric Grandmother can robots love? Where does your lap go when you stand up? Aw, screw the morals. This is one cracking good yarn that keeps the reader rapt. Rapt? Rape? Can you rape a pleasure 'bot whose only purpose is sex? Great read.